Furloughed feds try the gig economy. It’s a mixed bag.

The absurdity of the partial government shutdown has acquired a sort of grandeur. Republican senators met at a Nationals Park conference room while furloughed federal employees marched outside. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi tried to cancel the State of the Union speech, and President Donald Trump put the whammy on her trip to Afghanistan.

Down at ground level, some federal employees are sticking a toe into the gig economy. I totally feel for anyone who has to work in this manner. I’ve done it myself off and on over the years — and I’ve never even lost a job.

People get into financial need for a million reasons. Once I ran into a fellow I knew working the counter at a home improvement store. I knew he was the financial controller of a successful leather importer. What’s going on, I wondered? He’d been trying to get in on the house-flipping market. But he ran into trouble, lost nearly everything, and ended up under federal indictment.

That guy brought on his own troubles. But the Lord knows how many feds and contractor employees are whacked by the political impasse? They’re the innocents, here.

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Unfortunately, the gig economy is even less reliable and more fraught than the drone-in-a-cubicle economy.

Think of the gig economy as a big restaurant. At the top of the food chain, so to speak, you’ve got the owners. Sometimes the owner is also a big-time chef. They can make millions, start chains or franchises, have a TV show. But most of them fail. Customers are fickle, rents are high, build-outs expensive. At the bottom are, say, dishwashers. They make little money, but if they don’t steal or drop too many dishes, the work is steady as long as the restaurant stays open.

Feds can certainly avail themselves of the gig economy. But those in the professional ranks can’t ethically use their noggins in a freelance way while on furlough. A drug evaluator isn’t allowed to consult to a drug company. A decider of gas and oil leases can’t help out a petroleum company.

Contractor employees at least have portability. A systems engineer on contract to Agency X can switch to a commercial client or change companies altogether and do the same work.

I’ve always tried to have a little something going on the side. I’ve found that in many types of gig work, life can get bizarre. Many years ago I was a wedding photographer on the side. I quit doing it when I started rising in the ranks at an employer. The money was good, but I was worried I’d run into someone I knew professionally while on a gig. I’d become a good psychologist. Like coaching one sad bride through all of the pre-ceremony routines. Her father had died a week earlier. Or mediating between two mutually glaring sets of guests at an interracial wedding. I prevented a fistfight among soon-to-be brothers-in-law.

I kept my cameras and flashguns for years after — just in case.

High end professional giggery doesn’t guarantee income, either. Clients come and go. Or they get taken over. Sometimes you’re left with big receivables, which don’t put chickens in the pots. I once got signed onto a freelance gig by a powerful CEO I’d worked for years earlier. I locked in a multi-year deal that paid well and could fit into just a few days each year.  But just before starting that gig, one morning the CEO suddenly dropped dead. The thing miraculously lasted two cycles, but that was it.

Like everyone else, I hope the shutdown ends soon. Federal public service shouldn’t be so dicey. It shows that no matter how we make a living or how much we earn, ultimately we all live by our wits.

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